At 79 years old (he’ll be 80 in November), Andre “Mr. Rhythm” Williams has been a singer, writer, producer, star-maker, showman, cult-hero and hustler for six decades. He’s been high, and he’s been low. He’s toured the world in snazzy suits and lived on the streets, asking for change.
For I Wanna Go Back To Detroit City, his fifth album for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, he wanted to return to his adopted hometown – a town that’s seen peaks and valleys just like Andre – from hustle and bustle to bust, from drinking out of crystal to drinking out of brown paper.
Back in the ‘50s, when Andre first arrived in Detroit from his Alabama birthplace, he made his mark with Fortune Records and his doo-wop group the 5 Dollars. Later, on his own, the Cramps- covered “Bacon Fat” and underground classic “Jailbait” were hit records. Berry Gordy, Jr. hired him at the fledgling Motown Records. There he produced Mary Wells, The Contours, Stevie Wonder, and others, before being fired, and then hired again, then fired, then hired again, over and over.
After that, Andre was like a musical Zelig – he was everywhere, man. He wrote “Shake A Tail Feather,” songs for Ike & Tina Turner, Parliament, and Edwin Starr. He crashed, burned, and was re-born when he recorded the garage rock sleaze classic Silky with members of the Dirtbombs and Demolition Doll Rods. Since then, he’s recorded albums with The Sadies, Jon Langford, Two-Star Tabernacle (featuring Jack White), Jon Spencer, Morning 40 Federation, and the Goldstars.
Now, the rollercoaster journey nally brings him back around to his musical birthplace. While recording the title track, Andre noticed they were practically across the street from the former location of Fortune Records, now an empty field, where many of his early classics were recorded. The song starts with Andre’s knowing, sly chuckle and kicks into a psychedelic soul mantra. Taken as a meditation, it stabilizes and focuses. There might be roaches in the kitchen, but there’s roaches in the ashtray, too.
Andre also wanted to see his house in the old neighborhood, and, again, found only a field with overgrown grass, no houses, no people, nothing. He couldn’t imagine Detroit ending up like this so he went into the studio that day and recorded “Detroit (I’m So Glad I Stayed).” It’s an anthem of resilience, full of low-end heavy funk courtesy of guitarists Matthew Smith (Outrageous Cherry, Rodriguez) and Dan Kroha (Gories, Demolition Doll Rods) that’ll trip you back to the Mothership. “Times” is a funky, slinky, growling rumination on the rough times the city has seen, built around the rhythm section of David Shettler on drums, and the late Steve King (Eminem) on bass.
Moving beyond the city limits, Andre’s still a sonic chameleon. Only he can effortlessly and roguishly kick out a couplet like “She was the only woman to get the electric chair/ I really felt bad about that cuz I wasn’t there...” on the talkin’ country blues of “Mississippi Sue” (with Jim White of Dirty Three, Cat Power on drums). “Hall of Fame,” a slice of Gil Scott-Heron- style street poetry and proto-rap featuring longtime collaborator Dennis Coffey (Funk Brothers), rattles off Andre’s resume and tells the doubters where they can stick it, while “Meet Me in the Graveyard” is a Halloween love song with a groove right out of a Superfly caper. AFTER the deal’s gone down. When Andre tells you to meet him somewhere, you go, dig?
Let the sounds and vibes of I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City permeate you. Headphones, friends, headphones. Use them. Take them earbuds to the trash. Let your mind be free to wander, free to groove. Free to overcome what’s weighing you down. Go Back. With Andre.
Andre “Mr Rhythm” Williams, who had been in declining health for the past couple of years, passed away on March 17th, 2019. We’ve lost someone who it was a singular joy to call both a hero and a friend. Thanks, Dre.
Andre was an R&B legend, and you may not even know it. He wrote "Shake A Tail Feather," and sang such uber-raunch cult classics as "Bacon Fat" (covered by the Cramps), "Greasy Chicken," and the epitome of songs about little girls, "Jail Bait." He worked at seminal labels such as Motown, Chess, and Fortune. He wrote songs for, or produced folks Ike Turner, Parliament/Funkadelic, Edwin Starr and Stevie Wonder.
After a few hard years in... er... retirement, he stormed back in the late 90's with a record called Silky. Since then he has recorded with the Sadies, Jon Spencer, The New Orleans Hellhounds, Two-Star Tabernacle (which included a very young Jack White) and many others. His resurgence of popularity (and notoriety) continued as he toured the world, bringing his singular, yet chameleon-like style to a whole new world of unsuspecting admirers.
He was the subject of a documentary, Agile, Mobile, Hostile that premiered at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival. Andre told it like it is, and if you got all bashful and shit with the blue language, you might've wanted to steer clear—the guy could make Redd Foxx (who gave him his nickname, by the way) look like Mr. Rogers. Don't let the shtick fool you, though, the man put together some of the most bad-ass soul shakers in the history of music. He stripped away all the bells and whistles and shoots musical arrows right to your goodie spot. Music at its most feral.
Also, Andre's shows generally featured at least one costume change. That can't be said about a lot of folks these days.